The 19th Wife

Impressions while reading The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff (Random House 2008)

(click on the title to go to David Ebershoff's website for background information)

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff (Random House 2008) starts with a number of observations by reviewers.  Several used the word "funny."  I found nothing funny in it except a few ironic scenes with youthful foibles on display, but the overall book was not "funny," "dryly comic," or "a lot of fun to read."  Not to me.

Most of these reviews were spot on, like The Charleston Observer observing that the book's appeal is because of its "continually being centered on the humanity" of the people involved.

The New York Times used loftier language, but made the very correct and insightful observation that Ebershoff

[By the way I do not use the word polygamy, plural marriage, because the only version that was commanded/allowed was multiple wives, or polygyny.]

The above-cited Times observation is not complete without the Observers observation that all of this is done by getting into and inside personalities, real and imagined, to represent this turbulent history.  That, I agree with the Observer, is the genius of this book.

So what about those reviewers who saw humor in The 19th Wife? Why did I not see humor where they did?  I saw both the 19th century thread and the modern thread of polygyny in what that Ebershoff weaves into his stupendously well written tapestry.  In both times Ebershoff rightly illustrates the plight of suffering people by either directly representing, or faithfully reflecting in fictional characters, the lives of real people.  These were suffering people, they were victims of their own faith, or of those either having -or pretending- faith.  

I appreciate that Ebershoff was very respectful of the fact that the motive, today as well as earlier, was faith, first and foremost. Faith in this case meaning the coercive power of the innate need for salvation seeded into believers from either the time of their conversion or their earliest childhood.  For these people, the faith they have been indoctrinated with says the only way into Heaven is through correctly believing in and obeying Christ.  

In addition to this somewhat normative Christian idea, Mormons also face a revelation from Christ in their scriptural volume, the  Doctrine & Covenants.  Its Section 132 states in essence that if one wishes to spend eternity where Christ is, then one must engage in/sacrifice oneself to the practice of polygyny.  It still says that.  But in the mainstream Mormon version of this volume, it does away with this requirement through official pronouncements stopping the practice, not revoking it.  These are authoritative pronouncements by subsequent church presidents recognized as Prophets by Mainstream Mormons, but not by its apostate offshoots who believe they are the true followers of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, as Ebershoff makes clear on his page 33 and elsewhere.  

Ebershoff correctly defines this line of separation between the mainstream Mormons and his fictional version of the leading Mormon fundamentalist split-off group.  He has a character discuss this fine dividing line in a book of scripture in a rather unique way.  This character suggests that it means that modern mainstream Mormons can't say that their church has no responsibility for this embarrassing and egregious social phenomenon in southern Utah and other places.

I was glad to see that.  Ebershoff also finally has this character say, near the book's end, that the modern practice of polygyny, typically seen by modern Mormons as a dark and dirty and repressive practice totally unfair to the women involved, is very much comparable with the practice of the principle in the 19th century.  It has been my first-hand observation that modern Mormons are totally disgusted with what they hear about the marriage practices of their splinter groups, and feel that the divinely sanctioned version of polygyny practiced in the mainstream church was somehow an elevated and lofty thing compared with the lust-fueled version leading to young girls being given to old men.  With comely young lasses being given to faithful old men, they are not available to these young men as prospective partners.  This led to young men being thrown out of the community, especially if they take a liking to a young lass destined to go to an old geezer.  Ebershoff introduces this topic on page 131 and finishes it very nicely on his pages 497-500.

The only thing really different between modern polygyny and its 19th century counterpart is this (mis)treatment of the young men, who become the "lost boys" of Utah and surrounding states.  This is a very cruel practice, and sends boys into the lowest rungs of a larger society they have been taught to fear, that they know nothing about, and that they will not succeed in without serious help.   It seems that there is no compunction about sending these boys into what is a very dangerous place and depriving them at the same time of the highest degree of the Heavens, the place where Christ dwells eternally.

This heinous practice is an artifact of the small community involved in polygyny.  It takes a much longer time to become a necessary practice in a larger community like the far-flung Mormon empire in the West.  Had the practice continued, however, and spread as widely as was the intent of the religious instructional rhetoric, getting rid of surplus boys would have become a necessity in that larger community as well.  As long as birth rates of boy and girl babies are nearly equal, and there is almost equal survival into adulthood, polygyny is not a sustainable structure for a self-contained society.  

But 19th-century Mormonism was not a self-contained society! Ebershoff dramatizes the role of the continual influx of new Mormon convert immigrants during the early Utah years.  The majority of them were women, and these women played an important role in making up new polygynous households.  This is why in the small communities of this time, the excess-boys problem did not occur.  Without continual missionary work bringing in this influx, society would have reached a steady state and polygyny would have become a problem, rather than a key to population-expansion through enhancing birth rates.

So much for historical observations.  This book also touched me personally because of my own experiences, real and imagined.  

I read Ann Eliza Young's 1875 The 19th Wife during my most fervent time as a Mormon true believer.  I read it and engaged in the typical defensive thoughts of someone whose beliefs were being attacked.  I thought she lied, exaggerated, and was a snooty, snobbish woman who thought she deserved better than her sisters.  I did not like her.  Her book made no favorable impression on me.

This time, seeing her tale now as a non-believer and as filtered through Ebershoff, it was much more compelling although she exemplified the experience of someone at the top of the food chain of polygyny, not at the bottom as was the case with the invented but credible fictional modern counterparts in Ebershoff's story.  Ann Eliza, in my opinion, just didnít "get with the program" of sacrificing herself in polygyny.  She was expecting a true marriage, foolish girl.  Her views on marriage, at the time of her first marriage, are totally romantic and starry- eyed, and were crushed by the reality of her husband's desire to add wives (page 261).  

She divorced him.  Then she became Brigham's wife through some subtle and not so subtle coercive actions by Brigham, and after being on his active wives list for a while finally found herself, largely because of her attitude, on the inactive list and in maintenance mode (p. 340).  What was wrong with her attitude? Nothing, she just wanted to be a real wife, a traditional wife. Not possible.  She should have known that from the get-go.  

It was incredibly illuminating to have Ebershoff comparing the 19th century and modern wife-numbering game.  He suggests, and I believe this may be based in fact, that the active list of wives was what determined a new wife's "number," not the total number of wives.  This would explain why some say Ann Eliza was really the 27th wife (the title of another fictionalized version of her life story) or even one numbered in the 50s!

Many of Brigham's older wives were being taken care of, maintained, which is a very noble thing, but were no longer on the active list meaning there was no longer any sex being engaged in with these women.  So they were no longer numbered.  A very few were never sexually active with their current husband, older women who were married because they needed support, perhaps this includes some inherited from the martyred prophet Joseph Smith.  

One must not forget the religious motivation for the men: the more wives and children in this life the greater one's dominions in the next life!  So getting a granny in maintenance mode here was a charitable thing, but in the next life she would help a man populate worlds without end!  There is sexual reproduction in the next life, at least making spirits takes a physical act between a resurrected, corporeal man and a woman, and as here the heavenly men can service many heavenly women, not the reverse.  It was assumed that human biology rules in heaven, hence patriarchy as God's Divine Order. "As above, so below" as the Theosophists and other occultists are fond of saying!  

Ebershoff did not make this vital doctrinal point in his discussions of motives.  He should have because it explains in part the urge to obtain as many wives as possible, and to have as many children as possible.  To broaden his eternal realm Brigham even adopted men as his sons for eternity so that as their dominions expanded he would rise above them in heaven's giant pyramid scheme.  One of his adopted sons was John Doyle Lee, who was a plurally married man famous for being the only one to receive the death penalty for his leadership in The Mountain Meadows Massacre, mentioned by Ebershoff, but described very well by Juanita Brooks in a book by that title.

Ebershoff portrays the polygynous community as engaging in the seduction, through religious promises of an eternal reward, of girls in their very early teens.  

A wonderful example of this is the past prophet and president John Taylor's seduction of a young girl, lovingly recorded as if it were love poetry, and reproduced on this website:

Most modern Mormons are angered when they hear in the news of polygamists seducing teenage girls.  They think it very shocking.  Today it is actually considered child abuse by law (as evidenced in both Texas and Utah cases recently).

However, similar things happened in the mainstream 19th century Mormon church, and in fact the exalted prophet Joseph Smith seduced very young girls with promises of salvation guaranteed for them and their families.  One young girl was only 14, several were 16 or 17 year olds.

Marriages of girls from 14 upward were not rare in these times. What made these seductions into a new "spiritual marriage" heinous was that some of these girls were temporary members of his household to allow their families to get settled into their new community, and they were under the protection of Joseph's wife Emma, who had no knowledge of these goings-on.

When this all "hit the fan" with Emma, so to speak, Joseph answered her via a revelation from God commanding her to accept the women Joseph had already been given, and to not stand in the way of his receiving more, or she, Emma, would be destroyed by God himself!  Section 132 of the Doctrine & Covenants  tells this tale and extends it to all women: they will be destroyed by God if they stand in the way of their husband's taking new wives, and if she does not give her permission, he may take new wives anyway.  That is he dynamic at work even today in the polygynist communities of the ex-Mormon variety, as Ebershoff's tale  illustrates very well.

Emma, by the way, flew into a rage and tore the revelation to shreds.  Good for her, but Joseph actually knew his wife and had already made a copy.  

Some thought it should never have been put into the volume of scripture that contains Joseph's revelations.  Why has it not been deleted? Because it justifies 19th century historical Mormonism, and it also introduces the very appealing Mormon doctrine of eternal marriage that is the reason for the temple marriage rite.  Plus, older widowed men can still gain an additional wife for the eternities if they marry again in the temple. To some, that is meaningful.  The same is not true for women, of course, in heaven polygyny is the rule, no polyandry allowed.  Women will be eternally married to only the first husband they were sealed to in a temple, unless they petition for a temple divorce from that husband.  If a temple divorce, or more correctly a cancellation of sealing, is not granted, then there is only one other way to get away from that first husband: ask to be excommunicated.

In my very earliest years as a Mormon I was actually converted to belief in the Principle. Polygyny as an eternal reality and an earthly commandment.  I confess to this in a page on this website.  I have come a long way from that phase in my life.

Reading Ebershoff's very well done story reminded me of many of the beliefs and feelings and longings that were once mine under the umbrella of faith.  Now I believe that those same feelings and longings are part of my animal programming, they are what sells products and movies, they are what leads to the delicious moments of unauthorized love affairs, but they have nothing to do with God or religion.

Polygyny is Biblical, as was also discovered by the Radical Anabaptist from 300 years before Joseph Smiths time.  They made polygyny a religious requirement, and their rhetoric had a lot in common with Mormon rhetoric 300 years later.  Luther agreed it was Biblical and allowed one instance of it in terms of a friend with a terminally ill wife. Lutherans and Catholics took up arms, and side by side eradicated the Radical Anabaptists.  Ah, the ironies of history!

So, there you have it.  All the reasons I was not amused by Ebershoff's tale.  But I was riveted by it, and my heart sank and acid flowed making me feel sad and sick as I re-read about the sufferings of those blinded by religious idiocy in our own time as well as a century ago.  

I recommend this book to anyone even remotely interested in the social phenomenon of patriarchy running amok in a religious disguise.  Come to think of it, Mormons are not unique.  Most religions are very patriarchal.  Their vision of the Divine Order is men in charge of women.  One of the few Judeo-Christian scriptural volumes not totally soaked in this man-made idiocy is the Book of Mormon.  Go figure.

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